I ‘met’ the author Alta Ifland online via Twitter, both of us exchanging opinions on news items pertaining to Romania or reviews of Romanian literature. Alta left Romania in the 1990s and has lived abroad ever since, first in France, then in the US, so we clearly had many things in common. When she asked me to read and review her novel The Wife Who Wasn’t, which is coming out in the US on the 18th of May, explaining that it’s all about cross-cultural (mis)communication, I could not resist. (It is also available for pre-order in the UK, although I am not sure if it has the same publishing date.)
The story takes place in 1996-7, mostly in California, but with some trips to the Republic of Moldova. Sammy is a reasonably well-off widower living in Santa Barbara with his teenage daughter Anna. He realises that she is running a bit wild, too much of a tomboy, so he decides she needs some womanly influence and finds himself a mail-order bride from Moldova. Enter the energetic, not-all-that-young but still attractive Russian lady Tania, arriving at the airport in LA:
He recognises the woman right away (though they haven’t seen each other in over half a year), not because she is very memorable, but because there is something that makes her stand out in the crowd. It may be her hair… or her swinging hips, marking her territory as she advances like a lioness toward prey… When she is almost near him, he notices that her skin looks very young, white and plump like a baby’s, and her lips, equally plump, have the shine and luminescence of a wet, luscious grape.
But Tania is no baby – she is a born hustler, hungry for all of the advantages and luxuries that America has to offer. Her new husband seems a bit scared of her; it is true that she has been hiding the fact that she has a teenage daughter back in Moldova, whom she intends to bring over to join her in California as soon as possible. However, it’s not a straightforward case of golddigger and victim, for Sammy’s own motives for choosing a bride from the ‘Old World’ are fairly murky:
It’s not that he couldn’t have found a wife on his own; what worried him was that he’d also have to marry her family and friends. He’d labored so hard to isolate himself and Anna from the rest of the world, from the vulgarity and petty noises that often passed for communal bonding. A wife from the Old World would have the immediate advantage of being an orphan, so to speak: no family, no friends. She would be like a rescued pet, entirely dependent on him. Not to mention the supplemental advantage of a woman from a world where they still believed in taking care of the head of the family!
You just know that things are not going to go according to plan. At first, Tania is stunned by the fancy houses, the endless choice in the supermarkets and shops, the fancy lifestyle. But the hipster Californian sensibility doesn’t quite make sense. When Anna tells her that she is a vegetarian, because she believes in treating every living thing with respect, Tania muses:
Treat chicken with respect! That’s a good one. I’m telling you, this country is going to the dogs. If you start treating chickens with respect, where does it end? Besides, she doesn’t even treat me with respect!
There are many opportunities for satire in the culture clashes between the newly-capitalistic Eastern Europeans eager for domestic comforts, and the privileged Californians hankering after an idealised ‘old-fashioned, more spiritual’ lifestyle. The hypocrisy of the capitalist system is exposed through delicious comedy. For example, when Tania looks for a job in a cafe (she wants to have her own pocket money, not have to ask her husband for an allowance), she is asked why she wants to work there. She replies very frankly that it was the only place hiring, that she doesn’t really want to work but she needs the money.
After all those years under communism, when we were forced to claim that we wanted to work for the good of the country, now, in freedom, I could tell the truth: I wanted to work for the money! I didn’t give a shit about society, all I wanted was the money.
The manager tries to explain that they represent more than a workplace, that every day they cleanse themselves of negative thoughts and have a philosophy of sacred commerce. Clearly, Tania muses to herself, if the communists are failed capitalists, then the capitalists are failed ministers who feel ‘compelled to shroud their money in the sacred veil of communal wholesomeness’.
Add to the mix Tania’s unruly daughter Irina, her good-for-nothing drunkard of a brother Serioja, Sammy’s divorced neighbour Bill with his teenage son, another art-collecting neighbour Lenny – and you have quite a powder keg of personal interests, rivalries, flirtations and affairs, attempts to seduce or trick or worse.
This is not the gentle observational comedy of manners that you might expect from Barbara Pym. It is more of a return to the original comedy of manners principles of the Restoration period in England or Molière in France, with heightened – often ruthless – satire, some stock secondary characters (who represent types rather than rounded individuals), complex plotting and counter-plotting, and a lot of social commentary. It is fast, furious and occasionally infuriating, as the largely unlikable characters try to outwit each other, but you can’t help wanting to know how these moves on the chessboard will all end.
There is one part that doesn’t seem to fit in as well with the rest of the story: the painting icons section. Before leaving Moldova, Irina tries to master the skill of icon-painting from the talented Maria (who later marries Irina’s uncle). Maria takes the work very seriously, and is fully immersed in the tradition and spiritual meaning of this ancient craft, while Irina just wants to learn enough to make a quick buck in the States. I personally enjoyed the long descriptions of Maria’s art and how she came to disover it:it reminded me of the film ‘Andrei Rublev’ and I really recommend you search for the famous Voronets blue, which is my favourite shade of my favourite colour. However, it jarred slightly against the lighter-hearted comic moments or social critique in the rest of the book. I also thought the ending was a bit contrived, as if the author wanted to wrap things up quickly, although it was inspired by real-life events in the Santa Barbara area.
Despite these two slight misgivings, I have to say it is a hugely entertaining novel, a perfect change of pace from my usual fraught fare; I gulped it down in 2 days. It steers clear of the cute and fluffy, and has quite a bit to say about the contrasts between two very different societies. Please note that Alta Ifland’s other work is far more quirky and experimental. The author cites Beckett, Clarice Lispector, Paul Celan and Kafka among her influences, and you can get an idea of her style in the prose poems she uses in her biographical notes on her website.
There are glimpses of this less conventional style of storytelling in the frequent changes in point of view. We occasionally have an omiscient narrator with a wry sense of humour, but we also get to see what each character thinks of the others and how they plan to outsmart them. This is sometimes done through the letters that Tania and Irina write to each other or to the grandmother they have left back in Moldova: that is where the truth comes out in an unvarnished way, with people who truly understand your background. The humour is closer in spirit that of the Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov, but overlaid with an easy, breezy Californian chick lit style; a more successful marriage, perhaps, than Sammy and Tania’s.